Alice Merton is one of the coolest humans I’ve ever met. She radiates the calm and grounding aura of a friend you’d share roasted chestnuts with, on a chilly winter’s evening. Our conversation moved from her career to recommending the binge-watching of ‘hilarious’ Amazon Prime series ‘Fleabag’, to sharing words of heart-felt advice. Yet at the same time, the sparkle in her eyes revealed a double-edged sword: she is able to transform into a striking rockstar onstage, capable of harnessing an entire audience’s attention with her incredibly unique music and voice.
She’s German-Canadian, with an English passport and having lived around much of the Western world. But most of all she emits a charming and curious sense which suggests that the world has yet to see her best work - exciting as she has already garnered much attention through her standout first album Mint, (and later edition Mint +4) released earlier this year, featuring hit ‘No Roots’. It peaked at number three on the US Billboard heatseekers chart and number two on the Official German Top 100. As her website bio states, ‘In addition to 7 Platinum Awards for her debut single in Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Austria and Turkey, Alice Merton has also won the Echo Award, EBBA Award and two awards for pop culture’.
Her show was a full house, with ages ranging from 18 to 60. But what struck me most was the professionalism and connection of her band. They performed with the refinement of an arena artist, clearly having rehearsed under strong direction and vision. Although the set was shorter than most sets I’ve watched, I left wanting to hear and see more of her. She did ramble between songs, ever so slightly compromising what was an incredibly strong set of music and stories. But the thought and intention behind her performance and craft has an energy that has got me hooked. As she continues to grow and embody herself on stage, I truly believe that she will continue to bring an incredibly fresh chapter to popular music, all over the world.
At only 26, she has starred as a judge on the German edition of TV series ‘The Voice’, with her contestant winning the series. On top of that, she’s toured the world, performed on Jimmy Kimmel and at Coachella within the last year. She’s conquering all the big spots in the music industry’s unwritten bucket list for the ‘successful artist’. What’s also interesting is that she’s got a unique perspective, having studied classical music from a young age, and having studied composition and song-writing at the Popakademie Baden-Württemberg in Mannheim. She started her own record label Paper Planes, “when no label was prepared to sign us” with friend Paul Grauwinkel, to outthink the major record labels in claiming all her rights and creative powers. She presents her unfiltered perspective on the world through music and branding, and embracing being turned down by major labels, to show others “that you don’t need a major label to be successful… you just need to have a vision”.
Sitting with me in the empty bar pre-show at Paradise Rock Club, she hugged a steaming cup of tea, a cozy hoodie and yellow beanie enveloping her. And although our chat lasted a tad longer than the 15 minutes assigned, we had an awesome conversation, getting excited at the shared ‘roots’ in both our musical journeys.
Read on to find out her thoughts on the journey, from the music student to influential artist.
What’s it like going to music school, and how has that helped your career?
It’s definitely helped my career. I have an understanding of music and have been taking lessons since I was very young. I was brought up in a classical perspective – learning singing and piano. Only later when I was 20, I got accepted into this university in Germany and learned how to sing differently. I studied songwriting and music business.
What’s the difference between the industry in Europe and over here?
They are two different worlds. Here you have so many different radio formats: Hot AC, Alternative, Top 40 etc. Industry wise, every country has their own way of working. Culturally it’s more laid back in Europe. In the USA they mostly focus on doing everything just in order to be successful. In Europe it’s a little bit different.
Does that apply to the way you write songs?
Sometimes. I write most of my songs with my producer in Berlin, Germany, so I can’t say that. In the US, you can have sessions that are focused on making a hit happen, or you can sessions that are really relaxed. So it really depends who you work with, not so much the country you’re in.
I wrote with a guy named John Hill and Dave Basset – but mostly I write with my producer as it gives me the freedom to write whatever I want. We just match. He’s like my other half when it comes to music. I met Nico (Nicholas Rebscher) when I was studying. I went to Berlin at the weekends to meet with different producers. I was signed with a publisher in my second year at uni and wrote songs for other artists. I met him at a session. My publisher asked me if I wanted to do a session with him, just for my project and I said sure, and that was the first time.
How did you know it clicked with him?
The first day we just listened and talked about music we liked and I gave him one song I’d already written and asked him to do a production of this, to see if it clicked. He finished it in a day and I remember taking the train back to uni and thinking “wow, this is amazing”. I wrote to him that night like “please do my album”. That was just our second session.
Who influenced you and how did you get started in the pop world?
Regina Spektor, the Killers, the Alan Parsons Project, Keane, Travis, the Beatles, and lots of musicals and classical music. All of it combined made my style. But also all that combined with Nico’s techno electro vibe. It was too much techno for me, and we found a mix. We both liked strong basslines and drum beats. That’s where we found each other. We try to mix those organic elements of having raw acoustic instruments with electronics - like electronic bass. I really enjoy combining that.
How did you transition from classical to pop music?
When I got out of school I originally wanted to study classical music and opera. I had lots of auditions during high school, aged 17. Theory and piano was fine but they kept telling me my voice was too young and wasn’t developed enough. So I didn’t make it into any of the colleges in Germany that I wanted to get into. I took a year after school to practice for these auditions and it didn’t work out. So I decided I needed to take a break from that.
When you graduated music school in Germany what was the process to getting your first taste of success?
It’s strange because it happened in a short period of time. I’d already written the EP while I was a student and we had lots of meetings with different labels around the world and none were super excited, and always wanted to change a few things. So I started my own record label (Paper Planes) with my friend Paul who I met at uni, uploaded it to Soundcloud, promoted within different blogs, and it grew organically.
What was your process of setting up record label?
There were so many steps involved and finding the right people to work with. There are 7 of us in the company. You can’t do it alone. It’s really learning by doing. It’s finding out how to work with Spotify, and a connection to the person who will put your music in the right playlists. The first time we went to them they didn’t want to play my music because I wasn’t signed to a label. It was actually Spotify America that put it on a playlist, without us asking them and then Germany caught onto it. Most importantly I love the freedom to release whatever I want whenever I want, without someone telling me I can’t do certain things. I enjoy the freedom.
Do you head your own marketing?
I design everything, I did the cover art. For marketing we work with promotion teams in different countries, who know the relevant markets. The actual product is something that I design - the music, the picture etc. But the actual promoting of it is something that other agencies do.
What do you love the most when performing for an audience?
I love making people happy and I love sharing new stories with them as I feel people can relate to them. I often feel better when I can get it off my chest and share it. It’s a nice feeling, it’s therapeutic.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
There have been so many. One of them is playing on the Late Night show with Jimmy Fallon. As that was the first one we’d ever done, and it was so cool to witness. Second would be the first time I heard my song on the radio. One of my biggest highlights was when my parents first came to a concert of mine in London. It felt really special to share that with them, and for them to see that I was trying to find my way in this music world - and them being proud of me and supporting that.
What was the most challenging thing?
Touring. I love it but the travelling, and even the temperature changes are challenging. We came from Mexico yesterday, and I already feel like my throat is dry. That can be annoying.
I don’t drink alcohol or smoke and try to go to bed straight after a concert. If we finish at 11pm then I’m in bed at the hotel by 1pm. So I try and get five hours of sleep. The sleep factor is the most challenging. I need sleep and I don’t get much on tour. That affects the immune system. It takes a lot of getting used to. It’s like learning how to ride a bike. You learn what’s good for you, which sometimes isn’t what works for others. After a show a lot of people need a drink to calm down, but I can’t do that. Although mostly people have told me good advice, like to stay healthy, do sports, yoga and meditation.
Are there any people you really want to work with?
Brandon Flowers and the Killers - that would be my dream collaboration. His music has been a huge inspiration to me and I find him a very honest guy, and his stories are pictures. For me that man is incredible.
If you could go back to three points in your career or life and give yourself advice, what would you say?
When I was at Uni, my advice would be: don’t forget to enjoy what you’re doing. Take a step back and enjoy it. Don’t get worked up about small problems.
Second piece of advice would be to make sure you really do what’s right for you and not someone else.
Third: Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion even when you’re in a room with only men, for example. I tour with only men and they’re all lovely but sometimes it feels a little intimidating. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion. You need to be comfortable, especially with your music. I could never perform something I’m not proud of. That’s why I write my own songs.
How do you #getinthegroove?
That would be induced by panic. In my head I always need to be better, and need to improve. With classical music, there’s all these instructions, like when to do a crescendo, when to play pianissimo – that really annoyed me with piano. I wanted to do it my way. The first time I felt free was when I was doing songwriting. It was the first time that no one could tell me how to write my own songs. That was very important to me.
I get in the groove by panic. It’s that classical mindset of having to be better. As a child, when I played pieces and I made a mistake, I’d have to go back to the beginning again as I’d be mad at myself. It’s the same with songwriting: you manage one chapter and then move onto the next and the next.
My writing process isn’t always the same but sometimes I’ll write lots of my ideas down when I’m tour. That’s when most of the writing happens as I have time to think about everything. And then when I’m in the studio I’ll start putting it together, like a puzzle. When you have time to breath and recap what’s gone on in your life, that’s when I write. Sometimes late at night or at 4 in the morning, I have the best ideas. Sometimes it starts with just the melody, sometimes just the lyrics. Sometimes both. That’s when I write it down and take it to the studio.
Have you got any ideas from weird places?
Supermarkets. Most of my ideas happen when I’m walking around supermarkets. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because everything looks so pretty.
What’s your one piece of advice for people who are starting out?
Try and find that thing about you that makes you different and emphasise that. When you decide to put out a song, especially the first song - it has to be a statement. For instance your life story, or something important you want to get off your chest. For some songwriters their song will be performed by someone else and it’ll be a hit. But I feel the honest way to tell stories about yourself is to be completely honest with yourself and let people in when sharing what you have to say.
Don’t let yourself get lost by record labels or horrible contracts that you can’t get out of. Also try and work with as many p